It’s the nature of the beast, or at least the business, that restaurant chefs are always on the move, changing positions at the drop of a toque. That is true even in the best of economic times. These times, which have taken an especially heavy toll on the fine-dining industry, have resulted in even more upheaval than usual. In our area, the effect has been two-pronged, with beloved local chefs uprooted from the restaurants where they amassed a following, and an influx into the Route 1 corridor of high-profile chefs who established their reputations elsewhere. Devoted diners may be forgiven if they find themselves doing a double take as they spot familiar names and faces in unfamiliar venues. Below is a round-up of who has landed where and what they’re cooking up. At least, that is, as of print time.
Michael Chang, MoC MoC, Princeton. About 10 years ago, Michael Chang was manager of Princeton’s popular Chinese restaurant, Sunny Garden. Chang had grown up in a restaurant family, his parents having operated Osaka Japanese Restaurant in New York. When, a few years ago, Chang, his wife, Jenny, and his sister, Carrie, were looking to establish a restaurant of their own, Michael happened to run into one of the regular customers from his Sunny Garden days at a supermarket. “We had been looking throughout the area,” says Jenny Chang, “Hopewell, Montgomery, Princeton. This customer became our agent, and about two years later, we found just the right spot.”
The right spot for their Japanese restaurant, which opened on March 25, turned out to be the long, narrow space on South Tulane Street that for many years had been the Verbeyst dry cleaning operation. The Changs hired a Manhattan-based firm, GRO Architects, to design a hip, modern interior, the focal point of which is a series of curved, undulating embossed wood and white slats that curve from the ceiling down to the gleaming dark wood floor. The renovation of the building’s exterior was undertaken by the landlord, Jeff Siegel. The restaurant currently seats 40 on the first floor, but in the works is a dining room downstairs, which will have a chef’s table (as well as two windows) and will seat up to 14.
Michael Chang is executive sushi chef at MoC MoC (pronounced Moe-Shee Moe-Shee, which sounds like the Japanese word for “hello”), while Jenny is general manager and Carrie is captain of the wait staff. “You’ll note we do no advertising,” Carrie Chang says, “yet our reputation is spreading by word of mouth.”
In the short time the restaurant has been operating, several dishes have already proven to be hits. Mango lobster roll is a take-off on a traditional New England lobster roll, with fresh lobster, avocado, and lettuce wrapped inside soybean paper wrap topped with mango and fish roe. Transformer roll is two kinds of tuna, salmon, and avocado wrapped in seaweed, lightly fried, and topped with spicy sauce. One recent special was sushi made with wild-caught king salmon from New Zealand, and the Changs will soon offer another of sea bream imported from Japan. “Our fish for sushi is always changing, and caught in different places,” Jenny Chang says.
Among the cooked dishes on a menu that also features traditional Japanese appetizers, soups, and salads, in addition to sushi and sashimi in many varieties and forms, the grilled Chilean sea bass with a spring mix dressed with balsamic vinaigrette has already proved itself a winner, Chang says.
Michael and Carrie Chang were born in Taiwan and came to the U.S. as teenagers. At that point, their parents already had a restaurant. Jenny Chang, too, lived in Taiwan until she was 11, when her parents relocated to Cherry Hill. After high school, the family moved to Toronto. She and Michael Chang met while students at NYU, and have been married for seven years.
MoC MoC, 14 South Tulane Street, 609-688-8788.
Manuel Perez, the Peacock Inn, Princeton. The new restaurant at this newly renovated and refurbished Princeton landmark will serve its first meal come mid-May. At the helm in the kitchen will be Manual Perez, whose resume includes serious time at both Le Bernardin in New York and Restaurant Nicholas in Middletown, the latter remaining New Jersey’s top-rated restaurant in the Zagat survey for years now.
Taking on the opening of the Peacock, Perez says, “gives me a chance to grow from chef de cuisine to executive chef. I had some liberties at Nicholas, but here I can do my own style of cooking.”
That style — seasonal modern American with a few twists — reflects a “brand” that Perez and the inn’s owners, Elaine and Barry Sussman, want to establish. Explains Perez, “It should be familiar and relatable. The philosophy is that food should be delicious first, then aesthetically pleasing. And it should pair naturally with excellent wines.” Perez sealed the deal, after a couple of interviews, by preparing a tasting for the Sussmans. “I did a pear and parsnip soup, seared sea scallops with fennel puree and citrus salad, salmon wrapped in phyllo, and butter-braised lettuce with pickled red onions,” he says. Needless to say, “They really enjoyed it.”
The biggest challenges he has faced, he says, are “nailing down the final details of the spaces. We had to send back the dining room tables twice! The hood in the kitchen has yet to be hooked up, and, of course, the final inspections.” But all the front-of-the-house staff is in place. These include another Nicholas alumnus, Chris Macartney, who will serve as maitre d’, as well as someone who will be familiar to those who remember the old cafe at Encore Books in Princeton Shopping Center: John Cross, who is one of the bartenders at the inn’s new barroom across from the restaurant. Pastry chef is Anne Renk, who Manuel Perez worked with at Nicholas and who, he was surprised to learn, had worked at the old Peacock Inn back in 1994.
The opening menu features not only a la carte dining, but also a five-course tasting menu for $65 — among the choices are spice-seared yellowfin tuna with avocado, edamame, and ginger-lime vinaigrette and mojo-braised suckling pig with crispy yucca, papaya-cilantro salad, and guava gastrique — and optional wine pairings for $40), and a vegetarian tasting menu.
Perez, a Jersey boy who was raised in Harrison, is clearly paying homage to his family roots in Puerto Rico. As this son of a factory worker told U.S. 1 (March 17), “My love of food goes back to the womb. Out of six children, [my mother] gained the most weight with me. [She] was an amazing cook.”
Perez says that he learned two key things from his time at Nicholas. “First, the importance of a good working relationship between the kitchen and the front of the house. Any hostility between the two was simply not tolerated. The kitchen staff came to realize how tough it is to be out front. There was mutual respect and an ongoing dialogue. Second, always do your best and remember that at the end of the day, the business is about aiming to please customers. Providing a complete dining experience is what differentiates the great restaurant from the merely good.”
Perez, 38, and his wife, Tracey, currently live in Middletown with their daughter, who is five, but they hope to move closer to the Princeton area, especially since Tracey has just completed schooling as a surgical technologist.
The Peacock Inn, 20 Bayard Lane, 609-924-1707. www.peacockinn.com.
Craig Shelton, the Skylark Fine Diner and Lounge, Edison. The most surprising move of all has to be that New Jersey’s most celebrated chef, whose erstwhile Ryland Inn in Whitehouse earned national recognition for its innovative haute cuisine, is affiliated with this sprawling, glitzy, space-age diner on Route 1. Shelton’s official title, since he signed on last year, is guest chef/consultant.
“It’s a concept piece more than anything else, which I love,” Shelton says. “I don’t cook on the line; I teach. More to the point, I am working with Constantine to develop a business concept for this economy.” He refers to the diner’s owner, Constantine Katsifis, whose other diners include the Americana on Route 130 in Hightstown and the Colonial on Route 18 in East Brunswick.
What the two men have concocted for the 250-seat diner is a menu that is half modern American bistro — complete with wine list and on-site sommelier — and half classic American diner wtih no fewer than a dozen burger choices and all-day breakfast. The result is a quirky but endearing stew, with equal attention to quality and value on both halves, whether it is a first course of grilled, Moroccan-spiced mini-lamb chops, an entree of braised short rib ragout pappardelle with porcini mushroom-Barolo sauce, or a turkey Rueben.
Shelton says his biggest challenge has been to get the managers to extricate themselves from the non-stop operations for even 30 minutes a day to work on the business. “In the past I was given access to management and staff during down periods between service,” he says about the project he terms “a modest proposal” and “a work in progress.” Other obstacles include cooks who don’t speak English and overcoming the idea that a dish had to be made, start to finish, in eight minutes. “I had to instill the idea of slow cooking and let them see how roasting a chicken for two hours at a gentle temperature yields a tender, juicy bird with complex flavor.”
Although he hasn’t yet accomplished everything he hopes to — “I’m just starting to work on desserts” — he is satisfied at this point, he says, that “management has come up to the level where I can monitor and pass the baton. I can be a resource. I’m proud to have pushed the envelope on value.” Whether this means Shelton, who turns 50 in July, will be returning to haute cuisine anytime soon remains unanswered, but he credits his wife of 15 years, Isabelle, with keeping him going through the rough times of financial bankruptcy. The couple resides in Readington, Raritan Township, with a son, almost 12, and a daughter, 6. Shelton’s 21-year-old daughter by a previous marriage is a sophomore at Villanova. The chef is the son of a military engineer father who worked on submarine navigation systems and a mother who taught French. He has degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale.
Skylark Fine Diner & Lounge, Route 1 and Wooding Avenue, 732-777-7878. www.skylarkdiner.com.
Dennis Foy, Dennis Foy Restaurant, Lawrenceville. The young Craig Shelton, as it turns out, gained his culinary chops decades ago at a groundbreaking restaurant in Morris County called the Tarragon Tree. The force behind it was a pair of brothers named Foy. Dennis Foy went on to own highly acclaimed restaurants in New York (e.g., Mondrian) and elsewhere, and last fall he and his wife, Estella, took over what had been the Lawrenceville Inn. After open-heart surgery in 2008, Foy, who is in his mid-50s, re-examined what he wanted to do and decided it was to open a small restaurant in a small town serving focused, simplified Mediterranean fare.
The new Lawrenceville Inn, his casual BYO, features five to six seasonal appetizers for $10 and about the same number of entrees for $24 each day, plus a few pricier offerings. This approach has received, he says, “a great response from the community. People in this area are sophisticated, well traveled, understand restaurants, and are really appreciative of anyone who takes the time and effort to recognize that going out for a meal is more than just having dinner.”
Dishes that have proved particular popular, he says, include loup de mer (European sea bass, also called branzini) with potato hash and preserved lemon, and roasted veal chop with pommes puree, roasted shallot, and Bordelaise sauce. That the center-cut chop is another favorite is impressive, since it comes with a $38 price tag. Foy has also noticed that diners are bringing “crazy good” wines to his restaurant. “Last Saturday night we saw a ’59 Petrus. We’re seeing tons of old Burgundies from the ’80s and early ’90s. Even a magnum of Gevrey-Chambertin. People are ecstatic about bringing wines from their cellars.”
The Foys have decorated the two-story Victorian with simple, modern furniture and decorated the white walls with Dennis Foy’s accomplished paintings.
Foy, one of five children, grew up in Philadelphia, where both his parents were artists. “My father was a master cabinetmaker who also wrote poetry. My mother was a homemaker and artist. I actually consider myself a painter first, chef second.” In addition to painting and running the restaurant,
Foy is back at school, earning a degree in complex social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and revealed at the April 23 fundraiser for the Arts Council of Princeton, which showcased some of Foy’s food, that he does indeed have political aspirations. At the restaurant, he says, he has hired workers who he has either trained himself in the past or who have been trained by people he trained (such as Craig Shelton), “so the lineage is there.”
The Lawrenceville Inn, 2691 Main Street (Route 206), Lawrenceville, 609-219-1900. www.lawrenceville.com
Kevin Sbraga, Jose Adorno, and Richard Moscovitz, Rat’s, Hamilton. Midway through 2009 the restaurant management operation of Philadelphia-based restaurateur Stephen Starr took over management of the eateries at Grounds for Sculpture, which includes this fine-dining venue. Installed as executive chef is Kevin Sbraga, an alumnus of Starr’s restaurants, as well as two other luminaries of the City of Brotherly Love: Georges Perrier and Jose Garces. The 31-year-old chef, who was born, raised, and still lives in south Jersey, has also represented the U.S. in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or culinary competition.
Under Sbraga’s direction, the menu at Rat’s has morphed from haute French to country French with a 21st century perspective. Prices are no longer in the stratosphere, yet all the amenities from amuse bouche to petit fours have been retained, and the dining room staff seems to have relaxed a bit — a welcome change.
Sbraga was away doing a stage so was unavailable for comment. (Staging is when a cook or chef works briefly, for free, in another chef’s kitchen to learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines. In Sbraga’s case, he is learning new techniques in other Starr kitchens.) But in his stead was Jose Adorno, one of two sous chefs at Rat’s, and with whom Sbraga worked with at Jose Garces’ restaurants. “We are pretty much the same person in the kitchen; there is real camaraderie, and everyday I learn something new from Kevin” says Adorno, a resident of West Chester, PA. He is only 23 years old, but after earning a B.A. in culinary arts from the Restaurant School in Philadelphia, where he grew up and where his parents still live, he went on to become opening sous chef, under Sbraga, at Jose Garces’ Tinto and Distrito restaurants.
About his experience at Rat’s, Adorno says, “Until now I have only worked in a ‘regular’ restaurant situation. Grounds For Sculpture is more like a mixture of a destination venue, an event/party space, and a regular restaurant. So we find ourselves creating menus that are strategically targeted to particular groups and parties. It’s a very personalized process.”
Adorno lived in Puerto Rico until he was eight, and returns there every year to visit his mother’s side of the family. His father was in the army reserve and went to hotel school there, and now owns a janitorial company. His mother worked for the government in Puerto Rico, did some teaching, and now owns a daycare company. Adorno started cooking as a youngster, when his mother hurt her back and he and his siblings had to take over the household chores. “I learned to cook both from my mother and my grandmother and I always enjoyed it,” he says.
Adorno has installed a new herb garden just outside the restaurant kitchen, where he is growing such exotics as lime basil, cinnamon basil, pineapple mint, garlic chives, and stevia — that last the naturally sweet green plant, which he uses to garnish desserts. “It could even work as part of an entree to counterbalance salt and acid components,” he says. Stevia is also a natural for the cocktail bar at the restaurant, where Alan Hallmark is beverage manager. Hallmark’s name and face will be familiar to fans of Forrestal Village’s Tre Piani, where he once worked.
That same where-have-I-seen-him-before feeling is applicable to Rat’s new general manager, Richard Moscovitz, who was opening manager and ran Marketfair’s Big Fish restaurant for almost seven years. After that, Moscovitz hooked up with Stephen Starr Events, managing both Buddakan and Alma de Cuba. When the organization discovered he was from the Princeton area, he was offered the position at Rat’s.
“The facility is unique and the people here are amazing,” Moscovitz says of his experience so far. He includes among those people Seward Johnson, who founded the 35-acre outdoor sculpture garden and the restaurant back in 1992 and who still provides input and feedback. “The restaurant has embraced the park more, as opposed to positioning Rat’s as a separate entity,” he says. “We’ve changed the business model to reflect that we are part of the park and that we depend upon each other. This is reflected in our new [lower] pricing policy, the development for the first time of a children’s menu, and the full moon dinners and walking tours.” Those last are offered once a month, on the night of the full moon (May and June are already sold out), and the $65 per couple price tag includes a romantic picnic dinner basket with sparkling cider.
Rat’s is also embarking on a new happy hour program, out on the terrace that overlooks the pond and garden, which are full-scale replicas of Claude Monet’s famed grounds at Giverny and which Moscovitz describes as “one of the most beautiful outdoor settings in the state.”
Rat’s Restaurant, 16 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, 609- 584-7800. www.groundsforsculpture.org/RatsRestaurant.
Rich Huarte and Peter Dierkes, Blue Rooster Bakery & Cafe, Cranbury. When owners Karen and Bob Finigan decided to add dinner (three nights a week) to their breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and take-out bakery spot on Main Street, they called upon the talents of chef Rich Huarte, who had worked for several years alongside Jim Weaver at Tre Piani, and whose last responsibility was as chef and manager of that restaurant’s wine bar, Tre Bar. This local-boy-made-good, now 50, who graduated from Mercer County College’s culinary program when he embarked on a second career, has just put together his first full menu for the cafe, where the concept is French country fare.
“The jumping off points were what’s in season, what’s available locally, and what fits with the style of the Blue Rooster, which means not overly fancy,” Huarte says. And, as much farm-to-table as possible. The restaurant belongs to a local farm’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, which is why organic asparagus with roasted garlic aioli is on the menu as a cold appetizer and why by the third week in April the evening’s amuse bouche was flan featuring spinach harvested each morning from less than two miles up the road.
“We started with a list of ingredients, including those vegetables and lamb,” he says. “Then we considered what dishes we could execute well. On the previous menu osso buco proved popular, so my thoughts ran to braised lamb shank. Since I personally come from a Mediterranean background — half Spanish, half Italian — and I’m naturally drawn to those flavor profiles, I thought creamy polenta would be a natural accompaniment.”
Huarte grew up in Mountain Lakes, the son of a linguist who eventually ran his own language school and a mother who managed the school’s office once her son and four daughters were raised. After studying international politics at American University, Huarte went into the family business for a while, teaching English as a second language to foreign executives, eventually using that experience as a consultant in the corporate world.
Huarte says that his position as chef in what is also a fairly independent artisan bakery means that his relationship with bread baker Bob Finigan and pastry chef Peter Dierkes is a bit unusual. “In most restaurant kitchens, the chef consults with the pastry chef, telling him or her which desserts will best complement the savory menu. The situation here with Peter is different, but his judgment and palate are right on, and he is virtually flowing with ideas.”
Peter Dierkes was the original pastry chef at Rat’s, a position he held through several changes of executive chef there, until the most recent management change. Rich Huarte says their collaboration, where there is some crossover, has yielded excellent results. “For example, I wanted to put a wild mushroom tartlet on the menu, and he came up with a wonderful, flaky tart shell. He is a joy to collaborate with.” Huarte also cites an “amazing” country loaf with sun-dried tomato and fennel that Finigan and Dierkes developed for the roast chicken and asiago sandwich on the cafe’s lunch menu.
The lineup of Dierke’s classic French and American pastries at the Blue Rooster is extensive, generous, and, at $6 apiece, a downright bargain. These range from an impeccable lemon meringue tart to ethereal napoleons and opera cake.
Blue Rooster Bakery & Cafe, 17 North Main Street, Cranbury, 609-235-7539. www.blueroosterbakery.com.
Danielle and Eric Chen, Hanami. This husband-and-wife duo already had two successful restaurants by this name operating in north Jersey, in Cresskill and Westwood, when they took over Sunny Garden more than two years ago. “We had been living in Bergen County,” Danielle Chen says, “but after we moved to Manalapan, Eric wanted to have a restaurant closer to where we live. He fell in love with the Sunny Garden building and location, and Mr. and Mrs. Yen wanted to retire at the time, and had put it up for sale.”
For more than two years, the couple didn’t change anything. “My husband and I have owned five or six restaurants over the years. Whenever we go in we usually take everything apart, hire new staff, rename the restaurant — we like to start fresh. But with Sunny Garden, we decided that since it was such a landmark, we’d just run it as it was. But, although it was a great restaurant, my husband felt it just wasn’t his own.” So late last year, the couple transformed it into Hanami, which is the name of Japan’s famous cherry blossom festival.
They brought in three star chefs to feature three Asian specialties: traditional and modern sushi, Japanese cooked fare, and Cantonese cuisine. They were: Stephen Wong, who worked at the acclaimed sushi restaurant, Megu, in New York, as well as his own Nouveau Sushi in Montclair (since closed), where he specialized in modern sushi creations; Peter Yip, who cooked Cantonese dishes at Tao, also in Manhattan, and Spencer Truong, who worked at the acclaimed Nobu in Manhattan. For a variety of reasons, both Wong and Yip have departed, but Truong is still there and, for the Chinese side of the menu, the Chens brought in M.E. Kuo, who has been executive chef at their other restaurants for many years.
“Eric and I feel we really serve the communities we are in,” Danielle Chen says. “I have always worked the front of the house in our restaurant, and I love getting know the families with kids who are, say five years old. Then I see them go off to college, and then come back with their friends. We watch them grow up and get married. That is what we’re trying to achieve here.” The Chens themselves have been married 19 years and have a daughter, 13, and a son, almost 12. Eric Chen grew up in Queens, where from the age of 12 he was a delivery boy for his parents’ restaurant. His father has been a sushi chef for about 20 years now. Danielle grew up in northern Virginia, where her parents, now retired, had an interior design business.
Danielle Chen acknowledges that after a shaky start, including complaints about slow service, Hanami is “coming together. I work there on weekends and over the last several weeks, the comments I’m getting are all positive.” With the change in chefs, she says, “our Chinese food is the best it has ever been. We have a strong following up north, and we are trying to achieve that here.”
Hanami, 15 Farber Road, Princeton, 609-520-1880. www.hanamiprinceton.com.